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Rash of Student Suicides Clouds ’Day of Silence’

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Apr 10, 2009
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Two years ago, a high school student taunted with anti-gay slurs killed himself. Now, his parents are seeking a program at the school to address bullying, according to the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national GLBT youth and safe schools organization.

In an April 3 press release, GLSENJ reported that Eric Mohat, 17, killed himself after schoolmates tormented him with anti-gay name-calling, even humiliating him in front of teachers.

GLSEN’s release says that "the school did next to nothing to address the problem."

Mohat’s parents, William and Janis Mohat, have brought a federal suit against Mentor High School, the Ohio school were Eric Mohat had been a student.

The young man’s parents appeared on ABC News to talk about their son, his death, and their quest to see that other youths would be spared.

They also said that though he was taunted for being gay, Eric himself did not identify as such.

The release quoted GLSEN’s executive director, Eliza Byard, who said, "As a parent myself, I can’t fathom surviving the pain of losing a child, or working through the rage of feeling that other adults did not take sufficient care of your child while your child was in their hands.

"But Janis and William Mohat are working to build a lasting legacy out of this tragedy, by trying to ensure that no other student has to endure what Eric did," Byerd continued.

"Bullying and harassment are endemic problems in far too many schools, especially anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.

"Despite this fact, far too many schools look the other way."

The release cited the results of a national survey that revealed a shockingly high rate of anti-gay harassment and bullying in American schools.

"Nearly two-thirds of LGBT students (60.8%) who experience harassment or assault never reported the incident to the school, according to the GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey of more than 6,000 LGBT students," the release read.

"The most common reason given was that they didn’t believe anything would be done to address the situation.

"Of those who did report the incident, nearly a third (31.1%) said the school staff did nothing in response," noted the release.

Nor does a student actually have to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered to suffer taunts and bullying, the release noted.

"Anti-LGBT taunts are also widely used against all students, not just LGBT-identified. Two of the top three reasons students said their peers are harassed in school are actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression, according to the 2005 GLSEN/Harris Interactive Report, ’From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America.’"

The problem is even worse for LGBT students. Nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT youth (86.2%) reported being verbally harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, nearly half (44.1%) reported being physically harassed and about a quarter (22.1%) reported being physically assaulted, according to GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey of more than 6,000 LGBT students.

The suit comes only weeks before the annual National Day of Silence, a peaceful protest during which GLBT students and their supporters signify their lack of a voice by remaining silent for a day. This year’s observance of the day will be April 17.

Anti-gay groups have encouraged parents to keep their children home on April 17, rather than allow them to go to schools where students will be allowed to remain silent in protest.

Noted the release, "Ohio does not specifically protect students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression."

In Springfield, Massachusetts, an April 6 suicide took place, again by a boy who had been targeted by schoolmates for anti-gay harassment.

Although Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, did not identify as gay, his tormentors harassed him "daily," an April 9th GLSEN news release said, noting that Walker-Hoover’s mother had made "weekly" requests to the Carl’s school, New Leadership Charter School, that the problem be handled.

The release said that Walker-Hoover’s death marked the fourth time this year a middle-school-aged child suffered such bullying and committed suicide.

"The other three known cases of suicide among middle-school students took place in Chatham, Evanston and Chicago, Ill., in the month of February," the release said.

The release noted that Walker-Hoover’s twelfth birthday would have been April 17.

The release quoted Byerd as saying, "Our hearts go out to Carl’s mother, Sirdeaner L. Walker, and other members of Carl’s family, as well as to the community suffering from this loss.

"As we mourn yet another tragedy involving bullying at school, we must heed Ms. Walker’s urgent call for real, systemic, effective responses to the endemic problem of bullying and harassment," Byerd continued.

"Especially in this time of societal crisis, adults in schools must be alert to the heightened pressure children face, and take action to create safe learning environments for the students in their care.

"In order to do that effectively, as this case so tragically illustrates, schools must deal head-on with anti-gay language and behavior."

Noting that Walker-Hoover had not identified as gay, Byerd warned that straight students were also at risk of such harassment and bullying.

"From their earliest years on the school playground, students learn to use anti-LGBT language as the ultimate weapon to degrade their peers," Byerd said.

"In many cases, schools and teachers either ignore the behavior or don’t know how to intervene."

The release also noted that, "While LGBT youth face extreme victimization, bullying in general is also a widespread problem.

"More than a third of middle and high school students (37%) said that bullying, name-calling or harassment is a somewhat or very serious problem at their school, according to From Teasing to Torment.

"Bullying is even more severe in middle school. Two-thirds of middle school students (65%) reported being assaulted or harassed in the previous year and only 41% said they felt very safe at school."

The release recalled the shooting death of openly gay California eighth-grader Lawrence King, who was gunned down while at school by a classmate.

Earlier this year, an Illinois student hung himself from a hook while at school. His death was ruled a suicide after investigators carefully looked into whether the 10-year-old boy might have been murdered or accidentally killed as the result of bullying.

A Feb. 17 article posted at The Prairie Chicken said that Aquan Lewis had hung himself from a hook in a restroom at Oakton elementary School in Evanston.

Investigators learned that the 10-year-old boy had talked about suicide beforehand with schoolmates, but denied any evidence existed to indicate that the fifth grader had told a teacher he was considering killing himself, contrary to early reports in the press.

The article noted that some medications have been linked to suicidal behavior in minors, and that the boy had been using an asthma medicine.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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